Tuesday, July 8, 2008; 1:00 PM
K Street columnist Jeffrey Birnbaum was online to discuss lobbying and politics on Tuesday, July 8, at 1 p.m. ET.
Read today's column: Disclosure Form Makes It Hard for Lobbyists to Disclose
He can also answer questions about his story today: Push for New Accounting Standards Gains Speed
A transcript follows.
A list of Birnbaum's columns can be found here.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Hello everyone. Thanks for writing in today. My column is about the confusion a lot of lobbyists are feeling in filling out a new disclosure form. I've gotten some e-mails that indicate that a lot of people are not heartbroken about the development. What do you think? Last week's column also produced a lot of mail. It was about people who call citizens around the country to drum up letters to members of Congress--all done on behalf of paying lobbying groups. Is that a development you subscribe to? Let me know. Now, let's begin.
Washington, D.C.: Please explain the stricter disclosure rules for foreign vs. domestic lobbyists.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for the question. You are referring to the item in my column that mentions a proposal by two senators that would require lobbyists for foreign-based companies to file as foreign agents rather than domestic lobbyists, as the law now permits. Only lobbyists who represent foreign countries have to register as foreign agents under the law. A foreign agent is, according to several lobbyists I spoke to last week, an even dirtier word than "lobbyist." It's the "Scalett F" as one lobbyist said. In addition, foreign agents have to say with whom they meet and what they talk about during those meetings--two things domestic lobbyists do not have to reveal. In other words, it's a lot harder to be a foreign agent and the name itself also gives lots of people heartburn. That's why folks like Todd Malan, who represents foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries, is lobbying so hard to prevent the senators' proposal from becoming law.
Washington, D.C.: So what is the answer: Do you have to disclose cab fare to a lunch that a congressman visits?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: This is one of the questions I posed in my column today, and one that ethics lawyers are trying to get an answer to. Late yesterday (too late to get an answer into the column) a spokeswoman for the Secretary of the Senate said that (if I heard her correctly) that cab fare to an event that a lawmaker shows up at does not need to be disclosed. As for air fare or some more elaborate effort to see what a lawmaker says or does, I don't know. It is one of those gray areas that will have to be worked out. One of the many.
Washington, D.C.: I don't feel sorry at all for the lobbyists in your column today. Let them suffer, but let them also disclose. It's time they told us more.
washingtonpost.com: Disclosure Form Makes It Hard for Lobbyists to Disclose (K Street, July 8)
Jeffrey Birnbaum: That's not very charitable, but it is what I've been hearing from some folks this morning. I'm afraid that lobbyists are not given much slack. What do you think out there? Should lobbyists be given a hard time just because they are, well, lobbyists?
Alexandria, Va.: I couldn't believe your column last week about the women who get other to write letters to Congress. For lobbyists! Is that legal? And don't senators know about that?
washingtonpost.com: The Cold Calls Behind Those Personal Letters to Congress (K Street, July 1)
Jeffrey Birnbaum: It is legal and I'm not so sure that lawmakers know that there are people out there who are paid by the hour to call folks and persuade them to write letters to their elected officials. It is a big and growing business, however, and DDC, the company I wrote about last week, is one of the larger players in that field. Interest groups pay large dollars to get those letters written and mailed. Most communications to Capitol Hill these days is by e-mail, and a lot of that is instigated by lobbying groups as well. Through Web sites and e-mail alerts and the like. That's a lot cheaper to do, hence the millions of e-mails sent in campaigns. It's a fascinating world that is hard to explain to non-Washingtonians. Maybe there's good reason for it to be so odd. Whatya' think?
Detroit, Mich.: The housing bill was supposed to pass in the Congress a while ago. What happened there and might Fannie and Freddie get off the hook now that their stocks have tanked?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, the Senate is still working on the forclosure-rescue legislation. The bill also includes the establishment of a new regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage lending giant chartered by Congress years ago. The bill is being held up by an effort by Sen. Ensign to attach an amendment that would extend expiring tax credits for wind and solar energy. Senat eleaders think the amendment, while popular otherwise, would sink the overall bill because the tax credit would not be paid for--something the House appears to be insisting upon, so far. In any case, you are correct, the housing bill was emergency, must pass legislation and has been that way for months. The Senate has been unable to pass all sorts of bills that fit into that category, My colleague Lori Montgomery and I wrote a story on our front page a week or so ago that said so. We'll see this week if the housing and Medicare bills begin finally to get through that chamber. As for Fannie and Freddie, I don't think their bad day yesterday in the stock market will alter the legislation much, if at all.
Chicago, Ill.: Hey Jeff, I have no problem with lobbyist petitioning and giving power point presentations, but what financial restrictions should be placed on them?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Well, this is the most positive response, from a lobbyists' view, that I've seen so far today. I don't think any financial restrictions should be placed on lobbyists, nor can there be, constitutionally. What can and has been done is to require that lobbyists disclose more about what they do, who they meet with, what they advocate and what they give in the way of financial contributions. I would not be surprised if more disclosures were heaped on lobbyists in years to come, and that would not be a bad thing. Lobbyists rarely fight that sort of thing and technology is making rotine disclosures like that easier to do.
giving lobbyists a hard time: They should be given a hard time, but not in the form of a ridiculous disclosure form. I've had to fill out financial disclosure forms for the government, and they're intractable. Poorly designed and ask for information in ways no one keeps it and not always relevant (like selling a stock at a loss means it doesn't need to be listed as a source of "income" but selling it at a gain does--how your gain/loss matters to a financial conflict is beyond me).
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Good point. Lobbyists are far from the only people who have to fill out paperwork for Uncle Sam who complain about the burden.
Port Ewen, N.Y.: Is API considered a lobbyist group? They have been hitting the airwaves with many pro oil ads lately, but their information seems rather skewed. Thanks
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Yes, the American Petroleum Institute is a lobbying group and you are correct. It has been spending tens of millions of dollars on ads around the country to push its point of view. It is "skewed" in the sense that it uses facts to make points that are favorable to the oil and gas industry. It notes that a lot of people own oil company stocks in their pension plans. It notes that compared to other industries, and by some measures, its profits are not so high. Stuff like that. And my guess is that the oil companies, while disliked, are being disliked less because of all this effort. People are not just blaming Big Oil for the massive runup in energy prices. And that is exactly what the ad campaign was supposed to do.
Fairfax, Va.: Do the lobbyists worry about Obama winning and doing anything to minimize their influence or do they see him as just another centrist Democrat who wont really rock their boat?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I think lobbyists see Obama as a meal ticket. Whenever a new president comes to town that produces a lot more business for lobbyists. New initiatives create problems and opportunities that lobbyists exploit. They get rich no matter who comes in. Because Obama would produce the most change, or at least threaten to produce the most change, lobbyists would make out better with him in office than with McCain, I think. In fact, the harder Obama goes after "special interests," the more money lobbyists will make. Because they are the professionals who protect those special interests from attack. There's no one else to do so. In my business, that's what you call an irony.
Fairfax, Va.: That guy who was stopped from taking his lobbying clients . . . from last week's column, I think. Has that case ended the notion that lobbying parent companies can prevent that common practice?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: You are referring to Harry Sporidis, who left the Washington Group with two lobbying clients and was sued by the firm's parent company. In the end, Sporidis and the parent, Omnicom Group, settled with undisclosed terms. But a statement by Sporidis said that his clients are still with him at Powell Goldstein, the law firm where he works. That has to be seen as good news for the common practice of lobbyists taking their "book of business" with them when they change employers--unless there is a contractual prohibition for doing so. Omnicom declined to comment, so I don't know what it thinks. But I do get the sense that Harry is happy--and so are a lot of his colleagues on K Street as a result.
Washington, D.C.: When will the Senate, and the House, get around to actually legislating, or is that off until a new president shows up?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: There will be legislation passed. I feel confident. The housing and Medicare bills, the fix of the alternative minimum tax (so that middle income families don't get whacked with a tax increase, the extension of a slew of popular-though-soon-to-expire tax provisions, the passage of basic legislation needed to keep the government operating. But beyond those things, I don't see much happening. And yes, the reason is largely because a new president is coming, and neither party wants to give the other a vote that could be used in attack ads. It will be a long, hot, slow summer in all probability in Washington this year.
Washington, D.C.: What might Obama do regarding regulating lobbyists if he should become President?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: I'm not sure he'd press for more regulation. He would mostly be careful about hiring them into his administration and would make it hard for his former appointees to lobby on the topics they oversaw when they leave.
Wilmington, Del.: What's the rush to change rules at the SEC? I thought it usually took a long comment period.
Jeffrey Birnbaum: In a story I wrote in today's paper, the Securities and Exchange Commission is depicted as moving toward setting a rough timetable for a major accouting change that would allow U.S. public companies to use international accounting standards rather than those developed by the U.S. The story, truth be told, was largely first reported on Saturday in the New York Times, but I tried to make the points a little more precise and timely. Such as it is. In any case, critics of the change say that it would defang some of the investor protections enacted in the wake of the Enron scandal back in 2001. They also claim that the SEC is moving now to try to sneak in its point of view before the Bush administration leaves town at year end. I'm not sure about either of those, but it is fair to point out that the SEC is a five-person commission. It has to vote. Also, proposed rules changes go through a process that takes months. In addition, the timetable for change would probably cover years. If there's a big rush to do anything here, it's not actually happening at the SEC.Anyone disagree?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: Thanks for writing in everyone. We covered a lot of ground today. I look forward to doing this again in a couple week. Cheers!
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